A Giant Funder's Commitment to the Global Fight Against Superbugs

Last summer, we reported on the alarm bells sounding in global health circles about the rise of new drug-resistant infections and the terrifying prospect that antibiotics are losing their punch, with potentially catastrophic effects on human health and well-being. This is not a theoretical threat; in the United States alone, it's estimated that drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths each year.

Some funders were paying keen attention to this growing threat, including the two biggest foundations in the world, Gates and the Wellcome Trust. "Drug-resistant infections are already costing lives all over the world. A problem of this scale can only be tackled through coordinated international effort to curb our massive overuse of existing antibiotics, and to accelerate the development of new ones," said Wellcome's director Jeremy Farrar last year. 

That sounds like a big job, even for a foundation with $27 billion in assets. But it's not surprising to see Wellcome playing a leadership role, here, with its laser focus on medical research and health issues worldwide. As part of this mission, Wellcome has dedicated billions of dollars to projects in over 70 countries.

So what's Wellcome doing to fight drug-resistant superbugs? Well, the biggest news is that earlier this spring, it stepped up in a big way to support the work of CARB-X—or the Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator. Wellcome made a £125 million commitment ($155.5 million) to the organization. 

CARB-X was launched in July 2016 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). CARB-X is the “world’s largest public-private partnership to accelerate global antibacterial innovation,” backing activities such as drug discovery, vaccines and rapid diagnostics. The organization, which is housed at Boston University Law School, is largely funded by BARDA and Wellcome Trust.

Tim Jinks, head of the Drug Resistant Infection program at Wellcome touched on the urgency of funding in this space, saying, “Years of insufficient investment means this pipeline is all but dried up. Through CARB-X, we are filling the void for early discovery support.” CARB-X is already giving bigger money, starting with a $48 million commitment to help biotech companies accelerate drug and scientific discoveries in the field.

The $48 million CARB-X commitment is broken up into two parts. The first is $24 million in investments to 11 biotech companies and research teams located in the United States and the United Kingdom. In broad strokes, the teams are working on developing new antibacterials, treatments, and diagnostics for some of the world’s deadliest drug-resistant superbugs. The second part is a pledge of up to $24 million in grants based on the achievement of milestones. Over the next five years, CARB-X plans to provide some $450 million in funding for the global fight against drug-resistant infections.

Wellcome Trust’s investment in CARB-X adds to the long list of its commitments to combating drug-resistant infection. Since 2004, the trust has dedicated nearly £286.7 million toward the fight.

Drug-resistant bugs aren’t the only dire global health risk that Wellcome is targeting. Earlier this year, the trust was among a group of powerful funders and country governments that announced a global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to “outsmart epidemics by developing safe and effective vaccines against known infectious disease,” with the goal of rapid deployment to prevent outbreaks from becoming full-blown global health emergencies. Wellcome is providing $100 million in funding over five years to the CEPI.